Knippa cemetery cleanup reveals forgotten graves

“We couldn’t stop; we had to keep going. We couldn’t wait to see what we would find next.” These are the words of Opy Gonzales of Knippa as she and her husband, Arnie, took on the monumental task of cleaning up St. Joseph’s Catholic Cemetery in Knippa even though they have no relatives buried in the cemetery.

There is no entity to take care of the cemetery, although Esmerijildo and Lupe Martinez at one time took care of the front part of the cemetery.

The Gonzales couple, members of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Knippa, began their journey back in May of 2019 and worked for seven weeks. An occasional church member stopped by to help, but, for the most part, Arnie and Opy did all the work themselves, a task which involved weed eating, clearing and burning brush, and picking up trash which had accumulated over years due to neglect.

St. Joseph’s Catholic Cemetery tombstone featuring a heart inscribed with the name Sra. Francisca Alamillo.

(Above) Knippa resident Opy Gonzales works in St. Joseph’s Catholic Cemetery, which is home to marked graves dating back to 1913.

“We had to use a push mower as we didn’t want to destroy any hidden tombstones,” Opy said.

In addition to worn wooden crosses, dozens of small cement crosses bearing no inscriptions are scattered about the back of the cemetery. Other tell-tale signs indicate forgotten burials.

The two oldest tombstones, dating back to 1913 and 1918 and enclosed by a barbed wire fence, were discovered at the back of the cemetery on the far right-hand side.

A homemade cement cross, standing the test of time, marks the burial of Petra Gomez, “Nacio en Febrero de 1907 Del Rio Tex, murio el 29 de Abril de 1913 D.E.P. Knippa Tex. E. Gomez. Census records show her father was Eleuterio Gomez who worked on the Monkhouse farm in Knippa.

A few feet away is the marker of Diega Montoya, murio el 3 de Marzo de 1918 E.P.D.K. (Knippa) Tex. Diega is 70 on the 1910 census of Knippa and has her son and two grandchildren living with her.

Many of the older graves in the cemetery bear the inscription of E.P.D. or D.E.P. (“en paz descanse”), the Spanish equivalent of “Rest in peace.” The older tombstones use “murio,” meaning “died,” while later tombstones bear the words “fallecio,” meaning “passed away.” Many of the older tombstones, inscribed in Spanish, bear only the age of the deceased and the date of death.

There is a personal, yet poignant touch, to Hispanic burials. Names and dates are often accompanied by a loving inscription such as “Un recuerdo de su esposa y hija,” translated “A remembrance from your wife and daughter,” on Crecensio Juarez’ tombstone bearing the dates of 2/17/1877 – 11/22/1925 or “Busquenme en el paraiso” or “Look for me in paradise” on the tombstone of Francisco Esquivel (1970 – 1971). A newer burial at the front of the cemetery bears the inscription, “Una lagrima se evapora. Una flor se marchita. Solo la oracion llega a Dios,” translated as “A tear evaporates. A flower withers. Only the prayer comes to God.”

Hispanics, newly arrived from Mexico, were drawn to the Knippa area in the late 1800s and early 1900s as abundant work was available. Knippa was founded in the late 1880s when George Knippa and his family moved to the area, following the arrival of the railroad. The trap rock was opened west of Knippa around 1905, attracting Hispanic laborers to the area, plus many worked for the railroad and on farms. St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, a Catholic mission, was constructed in 1913 through the efforts of William F. and Frieda “Granny” Knippa.

Although Texas death certificates became mandatory in 1903, not everyone bothered to obtain one for a loved one. Many people were simply buried by family members. However, if available, the certificate reveals the line of work and cause of death of the deceased. Augustin Vasquez, fallecio Oct. 9 1929, eded 56 años, worked at the trap rock and was killed in a railway accident.

Eugenio Bernal (1883 – 1972) and his wife Encarnacion (1890 – 1980) were well-known in Knippa. Both were born in the state of Coahuila in Mexico but came to Maverick County in the early 1900s where Eugenio worked in the coal mines.

After the family moved to Knippa, Eugenio operated a grocery store but later became a plant operator at the trap rock. Sons Guadalupe “Lupe” (1910 – 1993) and Eugenio Jr. (1907 – 1950) served in WWII.

Both Eugenio and his brother Alberto (1925 – 1951) were tragically killed in automobile accidents. A sister, Catherine “Catarina” Bernal, graduated from Knippa High School in 1946, one of the first Hispanics in Knippa to do so.

Pedro Romo’s tombstone lay hidden under a fine layer of dust and was almost overlooked. After the dust was brushed away, the inscription was revealed: “Pedro Romo, fallecio a la edad de 79 años, Sep. 18, 1940.” According to his death certificate, he lived at 302 W. Nopal in Uvalde and died of heart failure, pellagra, and starvation.

Two of the most intriguing tombstones are homemade cement crosses, each bearing a cement heart tied to the cross with a wire. One is unreadable, but the other bears the inscription of Sra. Francisca Alamillo, murio el dia 26 de Abril 1930. It is presumed that the other marker is her husband’s.

There are 15 men in the cemetery who served either in WWII, the Korean War, or Vietnam. For over 10 years, Bobby Kramer of Uvalde and Enrique “Henry” Alvarado of Knippa have placed flags on the graves of those who served our country. Bobby related last summer, “It was tough this year when I had to place a flag on Henry’s grave.” Henry, born in Knippa in 1937, passed away on March 19, 2019.

Near the front of the cemetery are many newer graves with impressive tombstones. The Martinez family graves tell a story of lives lived and lost. Salamon Martinez (1913 – 1997) served in WWII. His son Salamon Jr.’s (1951 – 2011) inscription reads “Trucking my way to heaven.” There is also a Salamon Junies Martinez (1978 – 1996) whose marker reads “Roofing in God’s Kingdom,” but at the bottom of the marker is another inscription: “The river took you but you live in our hearts forever.” Another Martinez grave, complete with a photo, is that of Salvador “Chava” Martinez (1975 – 2001). A concrete truck is inscribed on the marker.

A cemetery tells a town’s history. With its hundreds of graves, St. Joseph’s is no exception. The early tombstones are representative of those who crossed the border and came to Knippa in hopes of finding a better life. Many stayed; others moved on, leaving behind deceased loved ones who lie beneath timeworn and often forgotten markers.

En paz descanse.

Allene Mandry was born in Uvalde where she attended elementary school before moving to San Antonio. Now a retired teacher, she has a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Education from Trinity University. She spends her time doing genealogy research and giving presentations on genealogy. Mandry and her husband, Arthur, live on a ranch near Camp Verde.

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